Here’s why government plans for longer tenancies don’t go far enough

Rental property in London. Image: Getty.

When the modern private rental market was devised as part of the 1988 Housing Act, flexibility was the theme. If a landlord decided they no longer wanted to be a landlord, then they could use Section 21 of the Act to evict their tenants with two months’ notice, with no reason necessary, and cash in their investment.

In theory, this was balanced by flexibility for the tenant too – they could move out with minimal notice as well. But the Act failed to acknowledge the enormous power imbalance between landlord and tenant. If your tenant ends the tenancy, your business now needs to find a new customer. If your landlord ends the tenancy, you need to find a new home.

According to the latest English Housing Survey, 271,000 private renter households were asked to leave by their landlord in the past three years.

Whether we make the decision or not, moving house fills few of us with joy. Some landlords abuse our reluctance to attend a dispiriting series of flat viewings, then pack everything we own into boxes and haul them across town, by evicting tenants who make a fuss. The threat of a retaliatory eviction discourages tenants from complaining and results in a tenure where the EHS found 28 per cent of homes failed decency tests.

The power imbalance is so wide that when the Conservatives stopped thinking of housing simply in terms of home ownership and started making moves to improve renting, revenge evictions were the first thing they agreed to outlaw.

But the protections for tenants under the resulting Deregulation Act 2015 came with heavy caveats. First, the landlord must be doing something illegal – namely letting out a property which contains serious hazards. Second, the local council must serve an improvement notice on the landlord before the tenant gets protection from a no-fault eviction. Third, that protection lapses after six months. Finally, a landlord can get around all of that by just putting the rent up so high the tenant is forced to move.

Now it appears that few tenants are getting the protection they’re entitled to. We looked at Freedom of Information data gathered from the 100 councils with the largest private renter populations – approximately two-thirds of the total in England – and published our findings last month.

Of the 72 councils that recorded “Category 1” hazards in 2016-17 (28 didn’t), a total of 12,962 were found. Yet the councils only took appropriate enforcement action in 2366 cases – meaning that just 18 per cent of tenants had protection from a revenge eviction. Only eight councils in total issued as many improvement notices as hazards they identified. And just four councils recorded cases where a Section 21 eviction notice was served on tenants who’d complained.


It is no secret that local councils are strapped for cash, which might explain why there is so much poor practice. But tenants should not have to live in the right town to have the confidence to complain. A flaky, fiddly and temporary system of protection is not enough to deliver safe and secure homes.

That is one of many reasons why Generation Rent is campaigning alongside the London Renters Union, ACORN and the New Economics Foundation to abolish Section 21.

Last week the government published its long-awaited consultation on longer tenancies. It proposes to replace the 1988 model with three-year tenancies, retaining the ability of the tenant to move out after six months. But the government has undermined this progress by letting amateur landlords keep their flexibility, allowing them to take back a property in the three years if they want to sell or move back in. According to last year’s EHS, 63 per cent of private sector evictions take place for these reasons.

A three-year tenancy with limited grounds for eviction should at least give tenants greater confidence to complain. But that’s not enough. They should also have the knowledge that, so long as they meet their legal obligations, the home is theirs. If landlords can evict a blameless tenant, the rental market will keep failing to provide the certainty we associate with home.

Ending Section 21 would still allow evictions if a tenant breaks the contract. If a landlord wants to sell, that’s fine, but they should sell to another landlord, with the tenants staying put – or to the tenants themselves. If they want somewhere to live, they can rent.

The government’s consultation is a huge opportunity to make renting a genuine alternative to owner occupation. The EHS reports that 2.7m private renter households expect to buy eventually – yet fewer than 1m have more than £5000 in savings towards a deposit. That leaves a lot of people who will be denied the stability they crave for years to come. By abolishing Section 21 the government would give renters a stable home now.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.

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Just like teenagers, self-driving cars need practice to really learn to drive

A self-driving car, of unknown level of education. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

What do self-driving cars and teenage drivers have in common?

Experience. Or, more accurately, a lack of experience.

Teenage drivers – novice drivers of any age, actually – begin with little knowledge of how to actually operate a car’s controls, and how to handle various quirks of the rules of the road. In North America, their first step in learning typically consists of fundamental instruction conveyed by a teacher. With classroom education, novice drivers are, in effect, programmed with knowledge of traffic laws and other basics. They then learn to operate a motor vehicle by applying that programming and progressively encountering a vast range of possibilities on actual roadways. Along the way, feedback they receive – from others in the vehicle as well as the actual experience of driving – helps them determine how best to react and function safely.

The same is true for autonomous vehicles. They are first programmed with basic knowledge. Red means stop; green means go, and so on. Then, through a form of artificial intelligence known as machine learning, self-driving autos draw from both accumulated experiences and continual feedback to detect patterns, adapt to circumstances, make decisions and improve performance.

For both humans and machines, more driving will ideally lead to better driving. And in each case, establishing mastery takes a long time. Especially as each learns to address the unique situations that are hard to anticipate without experience – a falling tree, a flash flood, a ball bouncing into the street, or some other sudden event. Testing, in both controlled and actual environments, is critical to building know-how. The more miles that driverless cars travel, the more quickly their safety improves. And improved safety performance will influence public acceptance of self-driving car deployment – an area in which I specialise.

Starting with basic skills

Experience, of course, must be built upon a foundation of rudimentary abilities – starting with vision. Meeting that essential requirement is straightforward for most humans, even those who may require the aid of glasses or contact lenses. For driverless cars, however, the ability to see is an immensely complex process involving multiple sensors and other technological elements:

  • radar, which uses radio waves to measure distances between the car and obstacles around it;
  • LIDAR, which uses laser sensors to build a 360-degree image of the car’s surroundings;
  • cameras, to detect people, lights, signs and other objects;
  • satellites, to enable GPS, global positioning systems that can pinpoint locations;
  • digital maps, which help to determine and modify routes the car will take;
  • a computer, which processes all the information, recognising objects, analysing the driving situation and determining actions based on what the car sees.

How a driverless car ‘sees’ the road.

All of these elements work together to help the car know where it is at all times, and where everything else is in relation to it. Despite the precision of these systems, however, they’re not perfect. The computer can know which pictures and sensory inputs deserve its attention, and how to correctly respond, but experience only comes from traveling a lot of miles.

The learning that is occurring by autonomous cars currently being tested on public roads feeds back into central systems that make all of a company’s cars better drivers. But even adding up all the on-road miles currently being driven by all autonomous vehicles in the U.S. doesn’t get close to the number of miles driven by humans every single day.

Dangerous after dark

Seeing at night is more challenging than during the daytime – for self-driving cars as well as for human drivers. Contrast is reduced in dark conditions, and objects – whether animate or inanimate – are more difficult to distinguish from their surroundings. In that regard, a human’s eyes and a driverless car’s cameras suffer the same impairment – unlike radar and LIDAR, which don’t need sunlight, streetlights or other lighting.

This was a factor in March in Arizona, when a pedestrian pushing her bicycle across the street at night was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber vehicle. Emergency braking, disabled at the time of the crash, was one issue. The car’s sensors were another issue, having identified the pedestrian as a vehicle first, and then as a bicycle. That’s an important distinction, because a self-driving car’s judgments and actions rely upon accurate identifications. For instance, it would expect another vehicle to move more quickly out of its path than a person walking.


Try and try again

To become better drivers, self-driving cars need not only more and better technological tools, but also something far more fundamental: practice. Just like human drivers, robot drivers won’t get better at dealing with darkness, fog and slippery road conditions without experience.

Testing on controlled roads is a first step to broad deployment of driverless vehicles on public streets. The Texas Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds Partnership, involving the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, University of Texas at Austin, and Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, operates a group of closed-course test sites.

Self-driving cars also need to experience real-world conditions, so the Partnership includes seven urban regions in Texas where equipment can be tested on public roads. And, in a separate venture in July, self-driving startup Drive.ai began testing its own vehicles on limited routes in Frisco, north of Dallas.

These testing efforts are essential to ensuring that self-driving technologies are as foolproof as possible before their widespread introduction on public roadways. In other words, the technology needs time to learn. Think of it as driver education for driverless cars.

People learn by doing, and they learn best by doing repeatedly. Whether the pursuit involves a musical instrument, an athletic activity or operating a motor vehicle, individuals build proficiency through practice.

The ConversationSelf-driving cars, as researchers are finding, are no different from teens who need to build up experience before becoming reliably safe drivers. But at least the cars won’t have to learn every single thing for themselves – instead, they’ll talk to each other and share a pool of experience.

Johanna Zmud, Senior Research Scientist, Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Texas A&M University .

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.